by Astrid Blikom

The new yuppie heaven

Young professionals bring change to mixed reviews.

Southie Beetle-Will it be pushed out of the neighborhood by a Mercedes?

If you go out for lunch in South Boston, you'll find it mostly a meat and potatoes town. Irish beer, of course, is also a must.

Yet every rule has its exceptions. Take Café Arpeggio on West Broadway. It is 100 percent hamburger free, instead serving dishes like Sesame Pesto Vegetarian Melts and Tabulleh Hummous Roll-Ups. Arpeggio doesn't sell beer either, but it offers up coffee in all thinkable flavors and sizes. If you didn't know better, you'd think you were in Cambridge or the Back Bay.

Which is exactly the point. "Southie," long known as Boston's tough, working class, Irish neighborhood is showing signs of change.

Keith Gould's family owns Café Arpeggio. Gould, 20, says all kinds of people come by, but that most of their regular customers are young professionals.

"Local Southie people do come by, but they seem to think our coffee is too expensive, although it's cheaper than in places like Starbucks," he says. " We rely more on the yuppies. If it hadn't been for them, we would never have survived here.

Café Arpeggio on Southie's West Broadway.

The neighborhood, infamous in Boston for crime, drugs and general roughness, was as recently as 1994 the subject of a U.S. News & World Report article entitled "The White Underclass." The piece cited census data showing that the lower part of South Boston had the highest concentration of poor whites in America.

Property values soar

"Southie" is Boston's Irish neighborhood.

In recent years, however, the neighborhood's median household income has increased. Young professionals have started to look across Broadway Bridge to housing they can afford. Census data shows that from 1998 to 2002, the average price for a South Boston apartment increased from $160,000 to $299,000.

A square foot of hardwood floor is still considerably cheaper in South Boston than in most other Boston neighborhoods. Realtor Gibson Domain Domain says a South Boston apartment will sell for about $300 per square foot, whereas the equivalent in the Back Bay would cost around $1,000.

Nevertheless, many long-term residents are finding it too expensive to stay. They are selling their apartments and moving to more affordable suburbs.

"Southie" three-family deckers.

Donna Hartman works at O'Kiley Real Estate, South Boston's oldest real estate agency. She does not hesitate when asked to describe her most typical customer. Lately, she says, the most common house buyers are young professionals, either recently or soon-to-be married. They are not from South Boston, and they are fresh out of college. They work in the center of Boston and are looking to buy their first apartment not too far from where they work.

"Southie's traditional three-family deckers more and more often become the first condo a professional couple owns," Hartman says. "You get much more for your money in Southie than in other parts of Boston. I don't think the newly renovated South Boston beach has scared anyone away so far, and besides, the city center is really close by."

Before walking up the aisle...

At Café Arpeggio, Michelle Setten enjoys a cup of coffee. She has a pile of pink envelopes in front of her on the table. Between every sip of coffee, she sticks stamps on the envelopes. And yes, they are wedding invitations.

Michelle Setten, soon-to-be-bride

Setten, 30, is originally from New Jersey. She moved to Boston three years ago, and is currently living in Beacon Hill. But Setten's fiancé, Kieran McCabe, also from New Jersey, bought a condo in South Boston one year ago. The apartment near the corner of K and 7th Streets will also be Setten's home after the couple marries in September.

When McCabe went to college, he was living in student apartments in Kenmore and in Brighton. After graduating, he moved to Milton. Three years ago, the Web designer and a friend decided to find a bigger place. McCabe also wanted to live closer to Boston since he worked downtown. But the two friends didn't really know where to start looking. They did not have a lot of money to spend, so neighborhoods such as the Back Bay and Beacon Hill were out of the question.

"I had heard about South Boston, but because of its bad reputation, I had never even thought of going there," McCabe says. "But when my friend said; 'let's check it out down there,' I thought; 'why not,' and as soon as we got there, I didn't want to look anywhere else."

The young men found a 1,500 square foot apartment that they rented for $1,700 per month. McCabe's friend moved out two years ago, and McCabe's brother Aron moved in. Within a year, the McCabe brothers decided to buy the apartment together.

"But when Michelle and I are married, Aron's got to go," McCabe says. "He loves it here too, so he'll be looking for his own place on the same block."

Kieran McCabe, Web designer and Southie newcomer

Setten and McCabe both feel at home in South Boston. He says he has never had such a neighborhood feeling before. McCabe says locals have made him feel very welcome on the block where he lives; it feels like everybody knows everybody.

"Before I moved here, I had the same prejudices as everybody else," he says. "People have all these ideas that this neighborhood is very rough, that it's not diverse, that the transportation is terrible, you name it. But none of this is true. We even know this gay couple that is living here without any trouble."

Although he doesn't notice it personally, McCabe believes many old-timers feel resentment towards the yuppies moving to their neighborhood. He says he can understand how people who have lived somewhere for a long time, dislike that things change, and that housing prices are rising because of these changes. He also says he understands that many locals dislike the fact that yuppies use South Boston as their playground for a few years before moving out to more expensive areas.

"I do understand people's resentment," he says. "But hey, that's just the way it is. We will probably move out at some point, too. We'll stay here for at least a few years, but we eventually want to end up in the suburbs. Michelle and I both grew up in New York suburbs, and we want that kind of surroundings for our children, too."

If he wasn't getting married, or if he could afford a bigger place, McCabe says he would stay in South Boston.

"I love my apartment, my block, my neighbors and how I can walk my dogs on the beach," he says. "And I can even ride my bike to work. I can't beat that anywhere.

"This might be the last affordable place close to the city," McCabe adds. "Maybe in five years, Dorchester will be where South Boston is now. In a few years, people will start realizing they can make good profit selling their places and moving out of the neighborhood. This is nothing less than a goldmine. I feel that I've been very lucky."

New development , old-timer resentment

West Broadway: West and East Broadway are South Boston's main streets.

The on-going development along the South Boston waterfront may ensure a prosperous future for the blue-collar neighborhood. The construction of a convention center and a luxury hotel means new jobs for South Bostonians. But it also means the neighborhood will become more attractive to outsiders. There is money to be made in the real estate sector.

But that's little consolation to those who choose to live here. David McLeod, a South Boston resident of 30 years, blames the rising housing prices on the yuppies. He says he was more or less homeless for two years because he couldn't afford to pay the rent in South Boston. He says it's unfair that long-time residents have to go because of the newcomers.

"The yuppies destroy the neighborhood," he says. "Because of them, the apartments here have become ridiculously overpriced. Southie people have to move out because of these youngsters who work their asses off so they can spend their dead money. Is Southie gonna become the new Greenwich Village or what?"

More arts and culture also have come to Southie in the past few years. Galleries and art exhibitions are popping up here and there, and recently, poetry slams and literature readings have also become popular.

Michael Olmsted moved to South Boston from Cambridge eight years ago. He has several artist friends there, and he is involved in arranging the poetry slams. Olmsted, 57, says both locals and yuppies are participating in South Boston's blooming cultural life, but that yuppies and other newcomers are those who made the neighborhood open up.

Michael Olmsted, arts promoter

"There's not that much 'we are us and they are them' going on here anymore," he says. "Southie has become more open, it's even become trendy to live here. It's not trendy enough to be called the new Greenwich Village or anything, but who knows: in a couple of years, maybe."

'The kind of citizens we want'
Although some don't mind, there is undoubtedly resentment at the mere mention of the word "yuppie." But the long arm of the law is pleased with the "y" word's growing presence.

District C-6 Commanding Officer Robert Cunningham joined the South Boston police two years ago. He says he has seen crime rates drop since he started his current job.

"The newcomers sure aren't giving us any trouble," he says. "They seem to be behaving in accordance with the law, and that's the kind of citizen we want here in South Boston."

A lifelong residents views

Real estate agent Patrick Lynch grew up in the Old Harbor projects in South Boston. He lived in the neighborhood all his life. But three years ago, it became too expensive for him. He moved to Dorchester, where he could afford a condo, and he is planning to move back to Southie as soon as he has saved enough money to buy an apartment there. But Lynch does not mind the yuppies moving to his childhood neighborhood.

More on South Boston

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"They don't bother me. In general, I think it's positive that yuppies are moving to Southie. It brings the housing prices up, yes, but it also brings the housing quality up. If no one had wanted to move in there, I don't think the quality of things had been very high."

Lynch, 37, says disgruntled locals who are mad at the yuppies need to get a grip, and instead focus on how they can make things work.

"All this complaining, it's ridiculous! You can sit around complaining all day if you want, but at the end of the day, it's not gonna get you anywhere. Guess what? Life isn't fair!"

Lynch says growing up in the projects, he soon realized blaming others wouldn't get him anywhere. He and many of his friends from the projects took responsibility for their own situation. He says now they are all doing pretty well.

"If people had spent half the time they spend whining trying to make their own situation better, I'm sure they would have had a less lot to whine over today."




- Café Arpeggio on Southie's West Broadway

- Southie Beetle-Will it be pushed out of the neighborhood by a Mercedes?

- "Southie" is Boston's Irish neighborhood

- "Southie" three-family deckers

- West Broadway: West and East Broadway are South Boston's main streets


- South Boston web site

- Info on South Boston

- ALL SOULS by MichaelPatrick McDonald






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